“Rocky or Rooted,” Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, July 16, 2017, FPC Holt

“Rocky or Rooted”
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Gardening, to my mother, is not a chore. It is a passion. While some dread mowing the lawn, she sits on her back porch, iced tea in hand, plotting out some elaborate pattern she will mow in the grass. She knows which flowers need sun, which need shade, which she needs to coach to climb along the trellis. Her gardens are fed mulch, water, and sunshine. My mother has shown me the care, nurture, and love that go into maintaining a garden.

With that in mind the image of the sower is initially a strange one. Here this man known only by his function, “the sower,” and yet he doesn’t seem very intentional about the way that he cares for his seeds. Some fall on the path, some on the rocks, and only some on the good soil. He likely wasn’t a rich man, but rather a tenant farmer working from his scarcity to make life grow. The role of the farmer is not a passive one, but rather requires a working of the land, intentionality in where things are planted, attention given to make sure that the plants get enough water, but not too much.

So why then does this sower seem to scatter this seed so broadly? In this parable God is most often cast in the role of the sower as God is the source of life and the origin of the good news, but I’d say for me I see God as more likely being the seeds. God in Christ took root in the world, grew so we might receive the harvest of his grace. As we read in the first several verses of the Gospel of John: “ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

“The Word was with God and the Word was God,” this means that the Word that was being sown was God. The Word that was being spread was God. And God is famous for being everywhere, even the unexpected places: scorched in the heat, picked apart by the birds, in the rockiest of places. God shows up.

What from the outside looks like the sower’s wastefulness, is God’s uncontainable abundance. If what you’re spreading is an extension of God’s own self it’s bound to go everywhere.

A lot of fear in this world is tied up in scarcity: worries over not enough money, not enough jobs, and not enough time. Even when we look at the less tangible qualities like welcoming and love and compassion it may seem like we need to hold some in reserve, only welcoming those who can offer us something, or perhaps we go the other way only being loving and compassionate to strangers, but not to the ones we see everyday, taking those familiar faces for granted. Sometimes it seems like we believe that the only way to be stewards of the goodness God has extended to us is to guard it carefully, in the fear that others might make what we have and who we are less.

When we are focused on the ways that our lives are lacking, we’re bound to be anxious and discontent. And when we’re living in that sort of space it’s hard to access the kind of imaginative and life-giving vision that energizes us to live into God’s plan for us individually, as a church, and as God’s larger church in the world.

When we seek to point out the inadequacy in our community and in one another over God’s abundance we miss out on God’s Good News for us:

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

It can be both painful and convicting if we stop to consider what sort of environment it is we provide for God to grow in and among us.

Maybe we’re the path, hard packed into a set pattern of how we’ve always done things, entertaining the presence of new growth from time to time, but more interested in keeping it all together than in being changed by something new.

As Protestants we affirm the adage “reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God,” but change can be hard, especially when we feel like we have everything all figured out. A path is by definition a comfortable route, worn down over time by person after person deciding that that is the way to go. While it can be a comfort for those who travel have helped to travel that path, new growth in that space would require a rerouting, a disruption of what is known for the sake of the unknown.  A new seed has no chance on a hard packed path unless one will make a space for it to take root, and will water the dirt that has become dusty from it’s barrenness. And as we see in the parable, an exposed seed is vulnerable and easily snatched away by the bird that will consume it.

Perhaps we’re the rocky soil, binding ourselves to what we are comfortable with and in doing so creating an impenetrable rocky border between ourselves and all that are on the outside. We leave room for others to come near, but like the rocky soil we don’t allow for roots to form, and those new and challenging things are unable to stay long enough for any stability or lasting growth.

I would hope that we would not be the thorny patch! Lack of growth on the part of the thorns is not the issue here, they themselves are growing, but their growth serves to keep others out, and chokes the other plants that grow there. Thorns are focused only on their own agenda and growth, but do not seek to serve others, rather they curl in on themselves in a tangled mess.

Ideally, of course, we would be the good soil, the most hospitable of the parable’s environments. The good soil provides nourishment and support. When the seeds fall on it they help each other to grow abundantly, providing stability to the soil, shade in turn for one another. By growing together these seeds each only bear a little bit of the burden of the outside environment. And as our parable illustrates, these seeds multiply in their growth yielding abundance!

Why does God waste God’s time being out among the rocks and the path and laid out as food for the birds? Because there is an abundance that springs forth wherever God takes root. This is the promise of our text and the prophecy of Isaiah:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

When the seed we are sowing is God’s own self, we can be secure in the knowledge that it will grow beyond our wildest expectations. God seeks to bless us richly, to take root in our church, in our homes, in our lives, and in our very hearts. By commissioning all who follow Christ as God’s disciples, as “joint heirs with Christ,” each of us are entrusted with that which is most precious, God’s own self. But unlike many precious resources, God’s goodness is multiplied when shared, the hope of Christ expands in the hearts of those who receive it. God’s word can only bear fruit when we scatter it broadly in all places, even and perhaps especially those who do not seem deserving.

While we should treat the love and care of Christ as precious, it is not scarce, but limitless. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” Christ died for all to extend grace to all. Might we share this grace so that others may grow in this truth. Amen.

“Living Alive,” John 11:1-45 and Romans 6:1b-11, June 25, 2017, FPC Holt

“Living Alive”
John 11:1-45 and Romans 6:1b-11
June 25, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Listen here

Mary and Martha. These two famous sisters are in several stories throughout the Bible. Our first introduction to Mary is when she comes to Jesus gathered together with his disciples, breaks a jar of expensive perfume to anoint his feet. At this time she is simply introduced as “a woman who was a sinner”. The disciples criticize her for her wastefulness, but Jesus comes to her defense praising Mary for the love that she showed him, and saying, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Then there is the story of Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home. Martha buzzes about the kitchen, going about the work of welcoming Jesus. To Martha’s chagrin, Mary sits with Jesus, simply being with him. When Martha comes to Jesus to complain that Mary’s not doing her share, Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part.”

Today we have another account of these sisters. Their brother, Lazarus is ill, and so they send word to Jesus to let him know it was a matter of life or death. Jesus dismisses this news saying, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” We are told in our passage that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but still, Jesus stays two days longer where he was.

What sort of love is this showing? Saying that God will be glorified through their brother’s illness? God’s goodness and grace is present in all circumstances, but Jesus’ summation of God’s glory in this situation rings of all of those aphorisms that we tell to grieving people when we’re not sure what to say. “It’s God’s will,” “everything happens for a reason,” and “no use dwelling on it,” can ring hollow to someone in the depth of grief and sadness. The emotions of a grieving person are not to be assumed and can only be truly understood by the person experiencing the grief. I think my seminary professors would say that Jesus is offering terrible pastoral care.

Mary and Martha know that things are not well with their brother and send a message expecting a reply, but Jesus stays away. And then, it’s too late. Lazarus is dead.

Jesus does not show up to support Mary and Martha until Lazarus has been dead for four days. Four days. Throughout scripture, God acts on the third day. The third day is the day of redemption, heroic recoveries, second chances. But even that day is past. Hebrew beliefs of death say that the spirit hovers near the body after someone has died for three days. On the fourth day, when the spirit sees the face of the deceased turn color, the spirit leaves, never to return. At that point, this existence ended and life was no more. Jesus shows up on the fourth day, the day beyond hope, beyond existence.

It was a matter of life or death.

If you turn on the news there are a terrifying number of situations where innocent lives are killed because of those complex sins of fear, bias, and hatred, all stemming out of a deep well of pain.

I watched a very important and troubling video these other days about parents and grandparents explaining to their children how they should respond if stopped by a police officer. I’d like us to watch it together, fully acknowledging that this will likely be uncomfortable for many, but also, that that discomfort can stem from the privilege given by the color of our skin and that for many of us in this room, these are not conversations we’ve ever had to have with children. For others among us, these conversations are likely far too real, perhaps even with your own experience of how who you are has warranted undue attention from law enforcement.

https://www.facebook.com/thismatters/videos/714035155442346/

In the video, each adult is adamant that there are both good and bad police officers, even when a high school girl tries to dismiss them as all bad, a mother says, no, there are good ones too.

My heart ached at seeing an 8-year-old recite a well-rehearsed speech, saying her name and that she is unarmed and has nothing that will hurt them. Her father sits next to her and tells were about a time he was stopped in the mall and tased, not because of anything he’d done, but because he was mistaken for someone else. She becomes visibly upset and goes to get a hug from her dad who then is also crying.

There’s a grandmother talking with her two grandsons, pointing out that the lighter complexion child will likely not have to deal with this. Another mother says to her daughter with her voice being to crack, “do everything that you can to get back to me.”

Where is Jesus in all of this?

Martha and Mary were angry.

Jesus shows up and by all signs of logical reason it is too late.

Martha leaves her home full of mourners and goes out to meet Jesus. She is beside herself, crying out to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

Later Martha goes to get Mary and Mary echoes the same refrain, kneeling at Jesus’ feet she says, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Mary is weeping, the other Jews with Lazarus’ sisters are weeping, and then we are told that Jesus himself is weeping. Lazarus’ sisters are angry, upset, deeply grieving, but still, they do not lose hope. Martha says, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She affirms Jesus as the Messiah with confidence in his ability to work out God’s will even in the shadow of their brother’s death. Even on this fourth day. Even beyond any logical reason for hope.

In their grief, Mary and Martha bring Jesus to the tomb, a cave with a stone in front of it. Jesus says, “take away the stone.” Martha is hesitant, saying, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Martha asked Jesus to come, practically demanded a miracle and then when he was on the cusp of something great, Martha is afraid of the smell.

“Come out,” Jesus says, and Lazarus emerges. In the hopelessness of the tomb, on this hopeless fourth day, Jesus calls out, and life is restored. Hope is restored.

This is such a strange story.

With all of the believers in the history of time, why is Lazarus selected out to be the one revived from death? His story is not a very long one. He is acknowledged as a man of poverty, a man in need of God’s grace, but aside from that, what is his legacy? Why does he get to come back? Why do Mary and Martha get to continue to have their brother in their lives? We are told explicitly that Mary is a sinner. Martha’s voice throughout her stories is loudest when she’s complaining. What have they done to deserve this?

What about all those other brothers of weeping sisters? What have they done to deserve this? When is Jesus going to intervene for them?

It is in asking these questions we become confronted with the uncomfortable reality that we are Christ’s hands and feet in this world. We are tasked with creating justice, restoring what is right. Sometimes resurrection doesn’t look like a man stepping backward out of a tomb. Sometimes it looks like a community surrounding a family in the face of loss. Sometimes it looks like lobbying and rallying. Often, it looks like listening, watching, and not turning away from the pain and death of those who do not look like we do, knowing full well that they, too, are created in the image of God and by knowing them, we are better able to know God.

In the strange story of Lazarus, Jesus uncovers hope beyond hope, and new life after death. We affirm in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. That after our own death we, like Lazarus will be called out of the doom and gloom of the grave and called to “come out,” into life everlasting.

This call is not one only to be heard after we are gone from this world. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior we are also being called to “come out,” of the smell of our lives of sinfulness. We are called to live a new life in the world surrounding us, in the bodies we are currently inhabiting, in the lives we are currently living. We are people of second chances. We know that death doesn’t have the final word. We are people of the resurrection. We are called out of the stench of sin into new life. We are called to live like we have already died. When we accept Christ into our lives we are called to die to sin, so that Christ may be alive in us.

And with the Holy Spirit’s breath circulating through us, we are called to speak out for justice, for hope, and for new life devoid of the hatred and pain that have changed us all so completely.

Lazarus was dead. But then, he wasn’t. This is the great hope we have in Jesus Christ: There is life beyond the sin that contains us. There is life beyond this world that constrains us.

God is not through with our world yet. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Hosanna,” Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29 and Matthew 21:1–11, April 9, 2017, FPC Holt

“Hosanna”
Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29 and Matthew 21:1–11
April 9, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

God’s love endures forever. God’s love endures forever. There are times it is easy to echo the Psalmist’s words: when we see God’s beauty in nature, when we experience miraculous healing for ourselves or someone we love, or when falling in love. God’s love endures forever.

What about when the pain of this world seems all too much; when pain, death, and destruction can be found under every headline?

I have to be honest, I’m not really sure anything that I can offer will be any sort of solace in a world where so many terrible things have been happening. As just another Christian trying to figure things out, I feel like the most authentic witness I could bring to the hurt of this world would be just to stand up here and weep, I believe that God weeps alongside us in our grief. As it says in Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” The Lord is near indeed.

However, as someone called to preach the word of God, I am not speaking on my own behalf. Thanks be to God. And so today I strive once again not to speak my own message, but, by the Holy Spirit, to speak God’s message of hope. I am here to preach God’s word, and so today, as each of us takes a break from the 24 hour news cycle and from our social media feeds, that is what I will do.

Bookending today’s Psalm we hear our refrain: “give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!”  In the Hebrew, the word we have translated as “steadfast love,” is “hesed.” “Hesed” is rich with meaning, it has been translated in older versions as “lovingkindness.” It is also used throughout the story of Ruth as the “covenant love” between Ruth and Miriam.  It appears in the stories of the Old Testament over and over as God insists on loving the people of God. It is an ongoing, unstoppable sort of love. It reflects loving acts of God throughout all of history, as well as our own, individual, immediate experience of God’s love and care for us.

Psalm 118 was originally written as a hymn of praise. The Messianic Christ was a hope for the future, but eternal salvation seemed quite far off. However, God’s desire to provide for God’s people was a historical certainty.  With the waters of the flood all around them, God brought a rainbow and a dove to give Noah hope of a new world. Through the faithfulness of a terrified mother God raised Moses from river basket to leader of a nation. In seemingly hopeless circumstances, God brought a child to impatient Abram and laughing Sarah. This passage is regularly read in the Jewish tradition in connection with the Passover as a prayer of praise for God delivering God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom.

In the New Testament God’s saving power is brought to realization in Jesus Christ.

God’s love endures forever. “Forever,” means that God’s love endures through all the crowds of Palm Sunday and the crowds of Good Friday. “Forever,” means that God is present even when God’s own son asks, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Rev. Lisa Horst Clark writes, “The true horribleness of any tragedy cannot be held by us. The depth of feeling required to fully contemplate any tragedy, let alone the big ones, is not the kind of thing a mortal can do. At least for me, emotionally, it breaks me. Thinking of all of that fear, and horror, and violence. The depth of sin in this world, and all of those broken hearts, are held by God—and even the tiniest fragment, could be too much for any of us to bear. I do not believe that contemplation of violence is redemptive unless it seeks to heal a wound—to sit beside those in pain.”

It is easy to get swept up in the lament, to get stuck in the sorrow of the world, to grieve the many losses of innocence worldwide. But to stay in that space of pain makes us frozen to the action we can take. In the often quoted Psalm 23 we hear of the constancy of God’s provision. In verses 4 and 5 we read: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

God is not merely creating comfort in an abstract intellectual way, but is walking alongside, co-creating peace, anointing with oil, and providing protection.

This Psalm does not say that we will never encounter darkness or that we will never have enemies. It does say that God will be with us in the darkness and among us when we encounter enemies.

Modern culture tells us that doing anything in the midst of our enemies is foolish, possibly even inviting confrontation or violence. But this Psalm is clear that if our confidence is in God, if we truly trust that God has our best interest in mind, we needn’t fear any evil.

Author and activist Eve Ensler writes about our particularly American perspective of security in her book, “Insecure at Last.” She writes: “All this striving for security has in fact made you much more insecure. Because now you have to watch out all the time. There are people not like you, people you now call enemies. You have places you cannot go, thoughts you cannot think, worlds you can no longer inhabit…Your days become devoted to protecting yourself. This becomes your mission…Of course you can no longer feel what another person feels because that might shatter your heart, contradict your stereotype, destroy the whole structure…. There are evildoers and saviors. Criminals and victims. There are those who, if they are not with us, are against us.”

She continues, “How did we, as Americans, come to be completely obsessed with our individual security and comfort above all else? … Is it possible to live surrendering to the reality of insecurity, embracing it, allowing it to open us and transform us and be our teacher? What would we need in order to stop panicking, clinging, consuming, and start opening, giving— becoming more ourselves the less secure we realize we actually are?”

There are very real fears in this world, but we are to keep in mind that they are of this world. We are called to listen to Christ’s message of hope and restoration over the world’s cries of violence and pain. We are called to dwell in the Lord right now, right here in the midst of this broken world. We are called to follow Christ in the bringing about of a kingdom of peace, hope, joy, and love. May we be conduits of God’s love, so that through us others will know, “God’s love endures forever.” Thanks be to God, today and every day. Amen.

“But Wait, There’s More!”; Acts 2:1-21; May 24, 2015, FPC Holt

“But Wait, There’s More!”
Acts 2:1-21
May 24, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Pentecost Drum Circle:

As our call to worship in our Upstream Service We created rhythms utilizing the different names of the groups present at Pentecost in Acts 2 and then put them all together to experience the movement of the Spirit among the people, bringing them together in one voice.

“But Wait, There’s More!”

Listen to the sermon here

2015 5 24 Slide01Do you ever feel like things are just a bit… noisy? You just have so many thoughts, so many ideas, that you can’t quite settle your mind down? Or you’re at a big gathering for a meal and there’s so many different people talking that you’re really not sure what conversation to tune in on? Or, you’re at one of those sports bars that seem to have one TV per person and they’re all on different channels and you just can’t seem to focus?

2015 5 24 Slide02This is the feeling I’m imagining at the very beginning of the Pentecost gathering. So many different people all drawn together, speaking in their own languages about their own thoughts and issues, everyone is buzzing about wondering what’s going to happen next. I like this picture of it… because it seems just messy enough to be accurate.

2015 5 24 Slide03Since the Holy Spirit has a great sense of humor, this very buzzing about is what was going on in my own brain as I tried to figure out what message this text could have for us today: We could talk about the correlation between Babel and Pentecost. We could explore the modern geography of the nationalities present at that gathering. I could attempt to deliver a sermon in Hebrew or Greek to see if the Holy Spirit shows up in the same particular way as in Pentecost so we’re all able to understand Hebrew and Greek perfectly, a miracle I would’ve been really grateful to have happen while I was in seminary. We could explore the Jewish festival of Shavu’ot as the setting for Pentecost, correlating the 10 commandments to the Spirit’s presence. We could talk about how the word for spirit and breath are the same or how the disciples had a similar reaction to the resurrection as they did to Pentecost.

2015 5 24 Slide05This text is overflowing with theological, ecclesiological, and eschatological meaning, but for today the message I know I needed to hear the most, the miracle in this text for me this time around, was the way the Holy Spirit calmed all of this madly buzzing chaos and brought clarity.

In a whoosh of wind and fire the Spirit transformed the community from frenetic into faithful, from cacophonous into melodious, from fearful into empowered.

2015 5 24 Slide06 In the midst of a busy season at the end of a busy year in my own life, I know I need that message. As a congregation freshly emerging from a big year of many celebrations, I believe this is the message we could all use: That when the Holy Spirit moves among us, we can better understand what God wants us to do next, because by the Spirit we can better understand God and each other.

2015 5 24 Slide07At the time of Pentecost, the disciples were under instruction from Jesus himself that they are not to leave Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes among them. But what will that look like? How will they know? In scripture we don’t hear them asking this question, but if they did I could imagine Jesus saying something along the lines of, “oh, you’ll know.”

After three years of ministry among them, his crucifixion, and then resurrection, Jesus ascends to heaven. Jesus is no longer there among them to answer their questions, to wash their feet, or to feed them loaves and fishes. And so, they are likely fearful, afraid that they are on their own, that God is no longer in their midst, since the primary way they have experienced God, so far, is through Christ.

After all that has happened in their lives with Jesus, he gives the disciples the divine version of, “but wait, there’s more.” So at Pentecost they are awaiting the Holy Spirit to come among them.

2015 5 24 Slide08And as the disciples are gathered with “devout Jews from every nation,” the Holy Spirit rushes in with a violent wind, and “tongues of fire,” resting on each of them. And in their bewilderment they draw close together and inexplicably can all understand each other, even though they are speaking different languages.

Imagine actually being in this crowd at that time and how it would make you feel: a strong and angry wind, fire all around you. It would certainly be terrifying. Loud noises and fire are usually not an indication of positive things, rather of an attack or hurricane or tornado. Keep in mind it was a packed crowd in that temple, with lots of unfamiliar faces, perhaps even people in the room who looked like the type of people you had been taught to mistrust. But you’re in this together, whatever bad or good may come of this strange situation.

2015 5 24 Slide09And then all of a sudden comes the moment I love in this passage, where the people in their fear draw closer to one another, and what was initially cowering in fear is transformed into gathering in unity. Their shouts of personal bewilderment aren’t just their own, but those of a common language and voice. They’re terrified, but in their terror they’re able to understand one another and the joy of that newfound clarity turns their panic into relief, discomfort into joy.

2015 5 24 Slide10It reminds me of a story from my favorite artist, Brian Andreas. He writes, “this is a machine that’s supposed to make people good & true & kind & the funny thing is that it works best when it’s completely broken down so everyone has to stop what they’re doing & get together & figure out how to fix it.”[1]

Their unification was initially out of fear, but in surrendering themselves to their astonishment, the Holy Spirit breathes restoration and new beginnings in their midst.

2015 5 24 Slide11As they drew together in fright the Holy Spirit transformed them into people of one language. As they were able to hear one another and Peter’s preaching they became people of one purpose, the beginning of the church of Jesus Christ.

The flames and wind and spontaneous ability to hear in one language were undoubtedly miraculous, but the part of this that I think speaks best to me today, was the way that the Holy Spirit enabled them not just to hear the words that each other were saying, but that the Holy Spirit enabled them to listen to the heart of one another, that they were each laid vulnerable before the other and truly understand God’s prophetic word for all of them.

2015 5 24 Slide12Author Mark Nepo writes of the ways the Holy Spirit can transform our own fears and misgivings into life-giving unification, “The moment we speak from the truth of compassion, we speak the same language always waiting underneath our differences.” Continuing on he says, “in a moment of vulnerability, in a moment of suffering or acceptance, in a moment of letting the truth of things rise within us, in a moment of risking to be who we are in front of others, we can feel the life of others wash over us as we slip back into the sea of compassion. And in that…moment, there is only one tongue.”[2]

2015 5 24 Slide13Through the Holy Spirit we experience clarity, a freedom from all of those things that we thought divided us, all those human-created conventions that we thought were necessary steps to accessing God. This freedom can and should shake up our lives, compelling us to reprioritize our own lives, and perhaps even our church to better reflect the priorities of God’s Kingdom.

2015 5 24 Slide14Particularly in our upcoming Summer of Sabbatical, may we be mindful to silence any voices in us that are not of God, ever pursuing God’s call for each of our lives.

Whether it be through flames of Pentecost or a look of familiarity in the eyes of the stranger, thanks be to God for every time that the Holy Spirit helps us to get out of our own way so that God might be more mightily at work among us. May we ever open our eyes to the ways God is in our midst. Amen.

[1] http://www.storypeople.com/2013/12/16/broken-down/

[2] Nepo, Mark. The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live an Authentic Life. New York: Harmony Books, ©2005.

“Can You Believe It?” Mark 16:1-14; April 20, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Can You Believe It?”
Mark 16:1-14
April 20, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Easter morning growing up I remember waking up early, my often-groggy eyes opening excitedly in the anticipation of what was to come. Then my sister and I would wake our parents and rush them downstairs so we could see what the Easter bunny had brought for us. We were excited because to us Easter meant baskets and chocolate and home sewn often-matching Easter dresses. Over the years we celebrate Easter in a variety of locations, from my grandparents house in Chattanooga, TN, to Florida on a spring break vacation, own home, but each time the routine was similar, the feeling was similar: joy, anticipation, and family.

Slide02Two thousand years ago, the first Easter held a very different feeling: sadness, fear, and grief. We are told was early in the morning, the day after the Sabbath, and Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb where Jesus was laid. They likely walked slowly in the morning light, united in the grief that things would never be the same with this Jesus they had all followed, they had all loved. They brought with them spices for anointing Jesus’ body, which meant of course that they were expecting a body. They were coming as they likely had to so many other gravesides, to do the dirty work of grief, washing, anointing, preparing. They were worried about the logistics: who would roll away the tomb, how would they draw close to their beloved Jesus?

They were coming for a funeral, a memorial. What they found was an entirely different scene.

Slide03They approach the tomb and there they find the stone had already been rolled away. At this point I would imagine their adrenaline would kick in, wondering who else could be there, what their motivations were for rolling back that stone. Were they friends or would they wish these women harm?

SLIDE 4 - Angel in TombThey take a collective deep breath and enter the tomb, where they see a young man, dressed in a white robe. They are frightened by this sight and can you blame them?

They were expecting death and found resurrection! They were expecting to see brokenness and saw holiness. It was a shocking sight!

The man says to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Slide05We are told that they ran from the tomb, in terror and amazement, and “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Slide06When you approached the church today, this Easter morning, what did you come expecting? That Easter morning 2000 years ago they were expecting brokenness, they had come in grief. Why aren’t we all dressed in black? We’re here remembering the life of Jesus, right?

SLIDE 7 - FPC CrossWell, actually we’re here for much more than that. We’re not dressed for a funeral, because that is not what we’re expecting. Many of us are wearing bright colors, new dresses and ties, colors of Spring, of new life. We have confidence in something more than the death that the women of the Easter morning were expecting, we’ve drawn close to the tomb, not expecting brokenness, but expecting healing. We’ve come expecting not death but resurrection!

What an incredible thing! Can you believe it?! Can you?

If you’re anything like the disciples, an honest answer might be “no.”

Slide08Let’s be honest with one another this Easter morning, it’s easier to show up in this story after God has already worked out all of this gritty and awful crucifixion business and everything is all grace filled and new life and resurrection. It’s harder to walk with Christ every single day of our lives. It’s harder to come to church on an ordinary Sunday without trumpets and lambs and lilies and the palpable feel of new life.

Slide09We are so much like the disciples, ignoring Jesus when it’s inconvenient, only making time for worship in the extraordinary moments of life. We need to be prompted by angels and miracles to remember the magnitude of our great God. We have no problem coming into God’s presence for weddings, funerals, Christmas, Easter, when we know what God’s story holds for us, but aren’t quite so sure what God has to do with us in the in between times. God has so much going on, God couldn’t possibly care about our day-to-day. When there’s nothing special to ask for or celebrate, God still wants to be with us, to remain in relationship with us in the mundane, so that we will trust in God’s faithfulness when things do get rough and complicated.

Why could none of the disciples stay awake through the night of Maundy Thursday with their Lord, Jesus? Where were these disciples when the crowds were shouting, “crucify him?” Why do the disciples scatter into the darkness of Good Friday? Why do we all gather today when the crucifixion and resurrection has all played out?

Slide10We would love to keep the darkness of those three days in the tomb at a distance, because perhaps then we might be able to ignore our own darkness. We don’t often live our lives expecting angels to show up in the places of our deep sorrow and point to the emptiness where our pain has been and trust that God’s grace has now taken root there. It’s easy to put on a white dress and a bright colored cardigan and to enjoy spring flowers coming to bloom in gardens, but it is very hard to accept the newness of life that God desires to spring inside of us.

What is the darkness in your life that you’re spending your time and energy mourning? What would it be like to invite God’s resurrection hope into your hidden pain? What would it be like to accept that there’s an angel sitting in the place of your darkest fears sending you out into the light to share the hope of resurrection?

Slide11Three times in our passage today we are told that the disciples would not believe that Jesus was living again after his death. Three times they are unable to accept that what Jesus had been telling them all along was the truth: that He was the Son of God. That He had come to bring about the Kingdom of God. That they would take part in building the Kingdom of God to come.

If the story had ended at cross, there might’ve been hope of these disciples being off the hook for bring about the whole “thy Kingdom come,” aspect of how Jesus had taught them to pray. If Jesus were simply a man, simply a great teacher who lived an exemplary life, and then died, there wouldn’t be much work for the disciples after his death. For what would this story matter if Jesus wasn’t what He said He was, if their Jesus, wasn’t actually the Christ? It would just be a story of another man with good intentions, who did some nice things for some people who were down on their luck.

Slide12But the story does not end at the cross, nor does it end in the tomb. The tomb is empty, Jesus is resurrected, and the story continues on. Through the disciples, we’ve all come to know the hope of resurrection: that Christ took on the sorrow of the world on the cross, suffered through hell, so that we might share in Christ’s resurrection, so that we might live lives filled with the grace of God.

Slide13What is your response to this resurrection story? Can you believe it? And more than that, does it matter to you? Are you willing to allow God to roll away your stony thoughts of “having it all together,” and allowing him to free you from the tomb of your hidden darkness? It is my utmost hope and prayer that you will allow this story of grace to be much more than a story to you, that it might be a very real chance at new life. May all of us welcome Christ’s resurrection into our hearts, this Easter morning, and always! Amen.

 

“From Where Will My Help Come?;” Psalm 121; March 16, 2014, FPC Jesup

“From Where Will My Help Come?”
Psalm 121
March 16, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I spent this past weekend in my hometown in Ohio working on some wedding planning and enjoying a shower thrown by my best friend and her mother. It was a busy but good visit, unfortunately cut short by one of this winter’s many treacherous blizzards. My parents and I kept checking the forecast. There would be snow. It would hit my parents house. They might see anywhere from 6 to 12 inches. And so, I left a day early to get ahead of the storm, but there was still that lurking feeling, “what if the storm takes a different path?” “what if it hits when I’m in the traffic around Chicago?” “What if I need to find a hotel tonight for Bailey and me?” “What are the chances of find a pet friendly hotel last minute?” “What if I get in an accident?”

Slide02All of these “what if”s were circulating around in my brain as I set out that day. With that in mind, I certainly understand the questioning of the traveler in our passage today: “Where will my help come from?”

Slide03I made it back to Jesup safe and sound and the storm I avoided brought upwards of 6 inches of snowfall to my parents home, closing school there for two days. Like it or not, given all the information at hand, I made the right decision.

Slide04Our traveler in the Psalm today was not equipped with a GPS and hour-by-hour forecasts from the Weather Channel complete with radar map, but with prayers and blessings by the sending community.

Psalm 121 is in a very unconventional format compared to most Psalms as it is thought to be a conversation between a traveler and the traveler’s home community. This Psalm looks a bit different when we look at it from that lens:

Traveler: I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Community: He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

Traveler: He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Community: The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Slide07This Psalm is a conversation, but it’s also a statement of faith. Even in the traveler’s uncertainty there is immediate affirmation of faith in God’s presence on the journey: “from where will my help come? my help comes from the Lord.” These phrases are back to back, as it almost said in the same breath. The traveler is simultaneously worried in personal circumstances and confident in our God who transcends all circumstances. There’s a beauty in the abundance of blessings offered to the traveler. While the traveler asks for help in a specific journey, a specific pilgrimage, likely to Jerusalem, the community blesses with confidence in God’s presence “keep[ing] your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” When we ask for a little, God responds extravagantly.

Traveling alone can be rather isolating, even fear laden at times when encountering inclement weather or gridlock traffic, but much more so if you’re traveling towards ancient Jerusalem. While I’m sure the traveler would have loved traffic updates from a smart phone or at the very least a guidebook with maps for water sources, he is blessed with more than supplication for the immediate needs, he is blessed with protection every hour of every day.

Slide08“I lift my eyes to the hills.” This phrase stuck out to me as I read through the text this week and the more research I read about it, the deeper this phrase effected me.

One possible reading of this text is that the hills could point to the hilltops around Jerusalem where the shrines of other gods were located. The affirmation that “my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth,” points to a God beyond any deities that can be contained to a hillside.

Slide09Another way this text was presented was that the hilltops were a frightening place with steep paths and rock formations that robbers would hide behind. When looking to the hilltop the traveler could’ve been filled with apprehension at the unknown hazards on the road ahead.

I’ve come to understand the text in light of all of these ideas. Yes, these hillsides are created by God, but they are also home to the distracting temptations of following other Gods. Yes, God carved out the mountain, but people have used those same beautiful formations to hide behind and inflict pain on those who wish to travel that path.

If you can’t see yourself traveling up through Jerusalem, perhaps you can find yourself traveling in other ways through your life. Through places and stages of life that bring you to both the beauty of God’s providence of creation and the temptations and hurt of this world.

Slide10While Psalm 121 is cast in the Bible as the Psalm of travelers, it has been applied more widely in the thousands of years since. It can be found in hospital delivery rooms and over the cribs of babies as way to affirm God’s presence during baby’s entry into and all through this treacherous journey of life. Hospital chaplains use Psalm 121 before someone enters the operating room, traveling through the fog of anesthetic and the uncertainty of surgery.

In verses 3-4 the affirmation that God neither slumbers or sleeps is not just speaking of God’s steadfastness, but also comparing God’s infallibility to the other deities that dot the ancient Jerusalem hillside. There was a common believe among the neighbors of Israel that their gods either “slept” or died during winter months and came back to consciousness during seasons of growth and harvest. Our God who is maker of heaven and earth is not so fickle.

Slide11The maker of heaven and earthy is present in all experiences, keeping constant watch over all who travel through life. In this short Psalm God is referred to as the keeper of our lives six times! What does it mean to you to be kept by God?

Slide12What would it mean for you to believe that you are surrounded by this blessing of a community of confidence in God’s providence?

What would it mean for our world for us to be that community; to share with other the confidence we have in God’s presence in each individuals’ wilderness journey?

Slide13This season of the church calendar also has us in the midst of a spiritual pilgrimage, Lent. Lent acknowledges a time of wilderness, when Jesus went into the wilderness and experienced a time of temptation and threats of harm. In Matthew 4:1 we read: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In a parallel account in Luke 4:1 we read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” As in our Psalm today it’s important to recognize that Jesus did not travel into the wilderness alone, but was filled with and accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

We will experience wilderness, times of fear and temptation, but we will not go into that wilderness alone. We are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, and surrounded by abundant evidence of the God who made heaven and earth.

Slide14When we feel lost it is good to look to the hills for affirmation of God’s providence, but we can also find that confirmation by looking down at our feet. God made the heavens and the earth, AND God made us. God crafted together our very beings and breathed the breath of the Spirit into our lungs. God is with your every step, your every journey, your every wilderness. May you hold fast to the promise that wherever you may go “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Amen.